According to NPR, two plays have dominated the world of high school theater for the last 76 years: “You Can’t Take It With You” by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart – and “Our Town” by Thornton Wilder.
Aside from proving that hard-hitting investigative reporting is still alive and well (I’m awaiting their forthcoming expose disclosing that cats meow when they want something, though we’ll never know exactly what because the feline critters refuse to acknowledge the existence of the Freedom of Information Act), NPR’s finding brings back bittersweet memories of my senior year in high school.
In case you’ve managed to make your way in the world without seeing it in some form, “Our Town” is about the town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, and its inhabitants, including young George Gibbs and Emily Webb, who during the course of the play get married.
The play is narrated by a character called the Stage Manager.
The last act takes place in a cemetery. Emily has died, and she sits among other Grover’s Corners inhabitants who have shuffled off their respective mortal coils and are now sitting on stage, like Emily, in folding chairs.
During the act, Emily is permitted to return to Earth to relive one day: her 12th birthday. For Emily, this turns out to be one of those things that seemed like a good idea at the time, but considering that “the time” was eternity, and considering that she had found herself among as dull a bunch of stick-in-the-grounds as you could ever hope not to meet, I wouldn’t be all that hard on the kid.
And by now I’m sure you’re wondering what my role in all this was. Was I the dashing, handsome George Gibbs? (OK, I admit I knew all along that you weren’t anywhere near wondering that.)
Or maybe the Stage Manager – but surely casting me as that gasbag would be casting against type, right?
I said, right?
OK, OK, I’ll end the suspense – unbate your collective breath as I inform you that I was a corpse in a folding chair – a farmer, to be exact.
Although I appeared as an extra at the end of Act Two – a guest at George and Emily’s wedding – I had nothing to do until the third act, when I declaimed lines like “Aya, right smart farm!” in a New England accent that was so disgracefully shoddy that after the final curtain call, Jessica Fletcher herself ascended the stage and personally horsewhipped me.
While the other two acts were being rehearsed, I’d chat with my classmates – though not too loud, lest you cause the director, Mrs. Jensen (yes, this was 1972 and she was still calling herself “Mrs.”) to blow her whistle at you.
Perhaps my most pleasant memory is playing cards with a couple of girls named Barb and Kris. Barb was a very attractive cheerleader who seemed to have no trace of vanity and was convinced I was a laugh riot. Kris wasn’t a cheerleader but was also good-looking and at least twice as smart as I was. She and I and another classmate appeared together on a local quiz show.
I think the three of us mostly played pitch, which I was pretty good at, but they also tried to teach me poker, which I still can’t play because I can never remember all those combinations of hands, and I’m sure that if you asked me to chew gum while trying to remember them, well, let’s just say the result wouldn’t be pretty.
But all in all, I guess I had a good time doing this play.
But would I, like Emily, like to relive it?
Part of me says yes.
But another part of me remembers two of the cemetery’s other inhabitants – Debbie, who played the gabby Mrs. Soames, and Louie, who played Wally Webb, Emily’s brother.
If I were to do that last act again, along with the same cast, I’m sure I wouldn’t be able to do it without thinking of the Sunday night, years in the future, when I’d be at my newspaper job, going over the obits, and finding Louie’s name.
Or the Memorial Day weekend when, while checking over the first edition for errors, I found Debbie’s picture on the obit page. I hadn’t known she was sick; I later learned that illness struck her not long after two of her nephews were struck by some jerk who decided that it would be a great idea to drive into a crowd of people on purpose. One nephew was killed; the other suffered a permanent disability.
Other classmates have also gone – including Barb, whom I never saw again after graduation, though I always wanted to thank her for her kindness toward me.
So perhaps the emotional overload of reliving the whole experience might prove to be too much.
Best to draw a curtain over the past.
Aya, right smart move.